10. Operation Storm; The great rescue.

Operation Storm; The great rescue.

Please forgive me if this chapter doesn’t come across as clear or as emotionally expressive. I wasn’t there; I wasn’t with my family during the final exodus, during the toughest times of their lives.
The daughter in me, and the sister in me wishes that I was with my loved ones on this day of fears, cries & screams. But the mother in me understands why it was so invaluable for my parents to know that on the toughest day of their lives, at least one of their children was safe and away from the missiles, hand-grenades & gunfire.
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My mum’s journey back to Bosnia went as smoothly as it could have; it was a huge relief for my father when she arrived home safely. She was happy. They both felt a huge sense of accomplishment knowing that their teenage daughter was safe and well and away from danger.
Mum found our home warm and children as happy as they could have been. Dad had looked after them very well, but sadly he couldn’t stay, he quickly had to go. My mum waived him off and wearily carried on with her autumnal jobs and harvests.
When dad left Pljeva, he was very swiftly deployed to move the military equipment from the Petrovac frontline, as this area had fallen into the Forces’ arms. He drove as much kit as he could fit on his lorry from Petrovac to Jajce.
On the 8th of September 1995, four days after I left, my father had finished his driving task for the time being and he was already back on the frontline near Jajce.
On this fateful day, he and his fellow soldiers were informed that the operation Storm had intensified and that the Forces were nearing Sipovo.
He instantly knew what this meant; he knew that he had to go home as soon as possible. In our instance, the closest Forces frontline was near Glamoc.

Dad knew very well that to reach Sipovo on foot, the Forces would have to go through our village first. Our family was defenceless; he knew that there were many, many women, children and elderly people in our village who wouldn’t be able to escape or defend themselves.
Dad had this priceless tool that could help many, many people; his lorry.
His only option was to drive his lorry back to our village as soon as possible, knowing all the time that this was extremely dangerous. Nobody knew how quickly the Forces would reach our village. They could have been there already. But you see, as well as this terrible fear for their lives, there was always this hope amongst our people that this offensive would not reach us, that the Operation Storm would be stopped by NATO before it got too dangerous. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to happen.
You have to understand what a difficult journey this was. To get to our village, you have to follow a very bendy road for about seven kilometres. This road closely follows our beautiful river upstream. On one side of the road, you have the river followed by the soft rolling hills, on the other side of the road you have the steep cliffs, the steep hills and the forests all the way into our village.
My father’s main concern on the way to our village was the fact that his lorry had a white cabin and a bright yellow tarpaulin.
He could have been ambushed at any point and he would have been a very easy, very visible target for the Forces. This was a nerve wracking, terrifying journey. Luckily, he managed to drive safely back to our village, but he was very fearful and anticipated an ambush after every corner.
He says that deep down he knew that the end was imminent. As well as driving very cautiously, he also purposefully drove very slowly so that he could, for one last time, take in all the beautiful sights and views of our stunning countryside.
In the past, our village was always protected from the missiles by our high steep hills, but when dad arrived, the missiles had already started falling directly into some of the neighbouring villages near our Pljeva. This meant that the Forces were at the top of the hills, they were very close.
Dad found our family at home. Mum told him that they and many of our neighbours had already been hiding in our cellar. These were our Serbian and Muslim neighbours. Mum tells me that they were all very relieved to see our dad and once they found out that he had managed to bring his lorry safely home too, this gave them an enormous amount of hope. To make himself visible to the rest of the village on the east side, dad decided to park his lorry across the bridge, tucked away behind this old building. This was the only place in the village where dad could hide the lorry from the western side of our village, where the forces were firing from. It was a huge risk to drive across the bridge, but this was the best place for it.
As the evening drew closer, the shelling eased off a little bit. My family decided to spend the night in our house instead of in the cellar. They say that at this point they were still hoping that this offensive would end very soon. Perhaps they had hoped that the Forces were shelling our village just to frighten them, as part of their fearmongering tactics.
Hope, in the toughest times, is a very dangerous thing, it can make one become very complacent.
Never the less, my father asked my mum to phone everyone in the village to let them know that dad had brought his lorry in, just in case.

A little while back, our little sister was given her first, hand-me-down, bike. This was her “favourite green bike EVER!”. I remember this one day when she was riding her bike in our garden, when we all suddenly heard this blood curdling scream. We all rushed outside to find that there were these three young cockerels attacking our baby sister! Our brother rushed to her rescue; he picked her up in his arms and ran with her into our home. Once she had calmed down, he went back out. He was so frightened for her and angry at the cockerels! Needless to say, we all had a lovely, unusually, for the war, lavish feast that day! It always amazes me how we, humans, can make the best out of a bad situation. That day we celebrated that our sister was rescued from this vicious attack on time and only escaped with a couple of scratches.
On the day of our father’s arrival, my mum and dad agreed that they should all make these last few days at home as fun as possible for our sister. She and many other little children had been traumatised enough already.
My parents wanted to allow our sister to still be a three-year-old little girl.
On the evening of the 8th of September, not realising that this was their last evening at home, they brought her precious little green bike inside, so that she could ride it around the house to have a little fun, as it was not safe to do so outside anymore. My parents and my brother did their best to entertain her and they kept asking her to sing and dance for them that night, just so that they could distract her from the noise of the occasional gunfire. During the gunfire or during the sound of explosions, she used to just go quiet, she never cried. She used to love singing and dancing for us! She was our baby, she was our happiness, she was everyone’s entertainment. Our sister always genuinely made everyone feel happier, content and better.
Once everyone had fallen asleep, dad stayed up all night patrolling around the village and checking up on his lorry. He says that he had just a couple of power naps by our front door.
He still hoped that the Op Storm would be intercepted by NATO or stopped; he hoped that they would all be able to stay in our beautiful village.

On the 9th of September, at the first light of dawn, the shelling intensified. This is when everyone knew that they had to flee. They had to run to save their loves. The shells were no longer falling into the neighbouring villages; they were now falling directly into our village.
My parents, and all of the people there, found themselves in an unimaginable pain and disbelief. They had to save their children. They had to leave everything behind, everything that they had worked for, everything that they, themselves, had built from scratch. They had to leave their haven. There was no time to waste.
My father asked my mum to try and pack as much of food as she could, whilst he went to get our granny. He told her that he would be back very soon and that he will bring his truck back. He also asked my mum to spread the word to say that whoever didn’t have any transport that they should come to our house immediately so that they could get into our lorry trailer.
Meanwhile, the shelling was getting stronger and stronger.
Very quickly, our cellar filled up to the brim; full of women, the elderly, young children and babies.
My baby sister, who is now almost twenty-six years old, remembers my mum screaming and crying hysterically because she was so worried that our father would get killed crossing the bridge. She knew that the bridge would have been the Forces’ artillery’s prime target, she knew how dangerous this was.
After a little while, a big crowd started gathering outside of our house and miraculously our father managed to drive the lorry across the bridge safely and park it very closely to our house, so that the forces don’t see it. But mum noticed that he was visibly upset; he was crying and angry at the same time.
Our father went to get our granny and she refused to come with him. She told him that he must go and save his family and the rest of the village. She told him that the younger people and younger families should have the priority on his lorry, she would only slow him down. No matter how much our father pleaded, begged or argued with her, she refused to leave her home. She finally agreed that she will make her way down with the rest of the people coming down from the hills.
By the time our father arrived in front of our house, a crowd of one hundred and seventy terrified humans had already, desperately, been waiting for him. They all started frantically climbing into the lorry, carrying their most precious material positions and their most precious memories. The lorry was filled with cries and desperate screams.
By this point, the gun fire was getting closer and closer. The bullets started embedding themselves into the walls of our homes. Mortar shells were being directed at the houses, into the roofs. My father, who was at the bottom of our balcony shouted for my mother to come down from the house immediately! My brother picked my sister up and went to escape through the front door. My mum threw the bags of food off the balcony, into my father’s hands. As she ran through the house, she managed to grab this extremely expensive cutlery set that she had bought for me, this was to be my wedding gift one day. She also grabbed a couple of photo albums. These photos were our history, our ancestry and our heritage.
As my mum, my brother and our sister in his arms, went to escape through the front door, the shots were fired at them; they could see the forces running towards them across this small field at the back of our house. My mum just managed to grab my brother and pull him back. The only way back into the “safety” was to run back through the house and jump off the balcony.
Mum screamed for dad; he turned around to see her desperate face full of horror. She screamed: “Jovan, take our children! Take them!”.
Mum lowered our sister first, our father managed to catch her safely. Mum then helped my brother jump off the balcony, into my father’s arms. Our auntie Rada took hold of our sister, and took her into the lorry’s cabin. This breaks my heart, apparently our sister screamed:” Save my bike, save my green bike! Who is going to ride it now?!”
This was my auntie Rada’s second plight for safety. She had already escaped from Travnik once before. She was just so grateful that she was still alive.
Once my brother and sister were safely off the balcony, my mum threw the photo albums down onto the ground, and whilst holding the cutlery very tightly, she jumped off the balcony herself. My father helped her.
As soon as she was safely on the ground, mum grabbed the albums and climbed into the lorry’s trailer to try and help with calming the young children down. My brother was in charge of closing the trailer’s back door and of making sure that the tarpaulin was tightened to the maximum. When mum finally looked down her body, she noticed that her skirt was ripped, and her thighs were heavily bruised, from climbing down the balcony. Mum was shaking heavily; my brother was crying.
Dad says, just as he pulled away from our house, he saw this woman running towards the lorry, weighed down by the bags of her belongings that she had been carrying. Dad shouted for her to hurry up as he couldn’t afford to wait. Sadly, she had to throw her bags onto the ground in order to run faster. She very quickly caught up with them and ran into the cabin.
By this point, altogether, there were one hundred and sixty one person in the trailer of the lorry and thirteen people in the cabin; one hundred and seventy four human lives at stake.
As soon as the cabin door was shut for the final time, our father set off. He didn’t know if they would make it out alive. He didn’t know if the lorry would be shot at.
And sure enough, about a kilometre from our house, a missile fell right in front of the lorry! As dad slammed the brakes, everyone in the lorry went flying forward. Our little sister hit her head on the windscreen and cracked the windscreen!
From that moment on, dad hit the accelerator and asked auntie Rada to put some music on, to the maximum volume.
He wanted to do what he could to protect our sister from hearing all the whaling coming from the back of our lorry. Also, he wanted to protect her from hearing all the gunfire and explosions.
Apparently, being the happy little girl that she was, even in the scariest of circumstances, she started singing and wiggling her bum in the little space that she had. His plan had worked.
Dad started singing himself, whilst tears were running down his face, occasionally wiping his face on the sleeves of his shirt, with his hands firmly on the wheel. He couldn’t stop thinking of his mother. He couldn’t stop thinking of the most horrific things that could happen to her.
He couldn’t help but believe that he would be responsible for her death. He would carry this guilt for the rest of his life.
He blamed himself.
Even though he, potentially, saved one hundred and seventy four lives, he felt the full brunt of his guilt for a very long time.

8. The first exodus.

Promises in hope.

In February 1993 was when some of my true, forever friends had to leave. In February 1993 was when we had to make our promises, in hope that we will be able to keep them, that we will find each other again. In peace.

It’s funny, I have a very clear picture of our last evening and of our last morning together, but I don’t have a clear picture of the build up to it, at all. Perhaps this is truly what they call a subconscious selective memory. I suppose our bodies go into emergency mode and along the way we find the best coping mechanism. Mine was to block things out.

Our beautiful village was no longer safe for anyone.

Our dad came home one late afternoon, we were so happy to see him! He explained to us that he came back to say goodbye to our neighbours. He had been away for a few weeks then, how he found out about this I didn’t know at the time, but I now know that our neighbours told him of the exodus date a while back. He asked me not to help mum that evening and asked me not to go to school tomorrow. He just said: “You go, spend this evening together, make sure they all have a lovely time. Be nice.”
I walked up the hill, to our friends’ house where a group of us met. We had no power that evening, candles were lit, and the radio was blasting some good old Yugo-rock.

By the time I got there, they had made loads of food and drinks, probably using up their last supplies in this home. They were always so generous. Our friends’ father was Muslim and their mother Croat; they decided to make their way across Bosnia to Croatia where they had relatives. The rest of the village Muslims were leaving in the morning too. The ones who didn’t have anywhere to go, decided to stay in their homes, whatever happens. There weren’t many of them.

Eventually the rest of our friends arrived, and we sang and danced late into the evening. We reminisced over the good old times and how much fun we all had growing up together. I remember I cried a lot, they teased me that I was always the sensitive one. It was a beautiful moonlit night. Eventually we had to leave and go home. Our friends walked us all back down. We decided to visit our favourite spot by the river one last time. We hugged, laughed and rolled around in the snow. In all this sadness and fear of the inevitable, we somehow became almost euphoric, until we had to say goodbye that evening. Our last evening together, ever. We hugged each other tightly and we said our goodbyes.

I went home to my family, hugged my mum and cried. She said that they were heartbroken, these were their friends too. Dad wasn’t at home, I think he went to say goodbye to his friends too. They were born in this village, they went to school together, they grew up together, yet then, our nations were fighting each other, separating us all geographically.
I was so angry at the whole country, at this horrid mess that we were all in. I wanted it to stop and I wanted out!

The morning of February the 27th came. I woke up really early, my face was still swollen from crying. We all woke up really early. When I walked into our kitchen, I found my mum making some fresh food to give to our friends, for the journey to the land of the unknown.

Eventually we all made our way to the bridge; there were two large parking spaces on either side of it. There were two busses there already and a handful of small trucks. The morning was a cold misty one.
I remember I stood there in disbelief; I was in denial, “This can’t be happening!”.
But it was. These people were leaving everything and everyone they knew, their homes and livestock, their history.
This, unfortunately, was not unique just to our village. This kind of exodus was happening all over the previous Yugoslavia. My uncles and aunts had to leave their homes when they lived in the Muslim and Croat parts of Bosnia. They too had to leave their friends to move back to our village, where they were deemed safe. They didn’t know what happened to their homes after they left. They assumed it was all lost or destroyed. Their journeys to safety were filled with some horrific events.

The same was going through our friends’ minds; will their homes still be there when and if they come back? Will they get to their destination safely?

It was time.

This was the first time I saw my father cry, apart from seeing him cry at various funerals. He cried when he saw me, and my brother say goodbye to our friends, we were all still just children. My mum was holding my sister who was crying because she was too cold. Mum carried her home, sobbing, herself.

We made our promises that we will always be friends and that geographical borders will not break our friendships. We made our promises in hope that we will always be friends.

The bus door closed, and they were gone. Forever. I stood there for ages, waving.
Little did we know that we would follow them soon, in our plight to safety too.
We, and a few other Serbian families, kept some of our neighbours’ most valuable material possessions in our attics, we kept these things for them in hope that they’ll one day come back. Mum and dad carefully stored them and kept them locked at all times.

The colour spectrum
When I think of this time, different shades keep flooding in. These are the shades of our stunning nature around me. Many things were changing, rapidly, I had no power over them, but one thing that was constant, was this breath-taking beauty around me. Our stunning nature was my coping mechanism.

If only you could see my valley. As I mentioned, I was a dreamer. There was this rock far up our hill, at the back of our house, that I used to sit on and fantasise about bigger things, about a different life. I never told my mother that I used to go to this rock because it was an extremely unsafe thing to do, but I had to. As well as my Milky Way, this rock gave me my day time escapism. I wish you could see the view from this rock.

To my right, our valley folds away into a near far corner, enveloped by pastures and a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees. From this corner is where our river slowly flows from. Our river Pliva has three sources that all meet together to form this stunning mountain river. It is truly a magical sight.

Right in front one me was our village Pljeva. A stunning, green, quiet village, with some beautiful souls in it. There are many small hamlets scattered around, filled with white houses covered with red-tiled roofs, you can see smoke coming out of the chimneys. There is a bridge right in the middle of Pljeva. This is the bridge that we used to hang around on and watch the fish in the river or the world go by. Mum doesn’t know this, but I used to climb down to the base of the bridge, with a stick, to see how deep the river was. The view from the bridge is breath-taking.

At the top of the hills, in the direction in front of me, stood our Serbian Orthodox church. After the fall of communism, my brother and I were christened in this church. In order for us to be christened, our parents had to have been christened too. Our mother was, she had proof, but our father wasn’t, and he had no proof. But, you see, he wasn’t bothered whether he was christened or not, he didn’t have time for this, so he argued with the priest, in the church, that he was in fact christened in the wooden church that once stood on the grounds of the new one and that all records of it were burnt when the old church burned down. Nobody knows the truth. I remember this occasion so well, it was comical.

To the right of the bridge, you can see my old school, with a football pitch at the back of it and a big birch tree picnic area by the river. During our long summer holidays, the football pitch was where we used to gather to play sports, or light a bonfire and sing whilst one of our friends played his guitar. We didn’t do this anymore, it wasn’t safe.

To my left, you can see the sloping hills, with higher mountains in the background. All of this was mostly caressed by this beautiful, deep blue sky. Most of our days were sunny, but when it rained it was very dramatic, with the most spectacular thunderstorms. I miss these thunderstorms so much.

From this rock I could see our old farm, where my grandmother still lived. I could just about see our barn and the orchard; the two cottages were hidden away by the ancient linden trees surrounding them. I was so free and wild when we lived there. I would close my eyes under the warmth of the sun and imagine that I was still living there, running around and climbing trees, thinking that I was invisible to my granny’s watchful eye.

Our village was beautifully green during the spring and the summer. But the autumn was something else! From my rock, I could see all shades of fire all around me. The colours spectrum was just spectacular. All around me.

I never used to go to my rock in winter, as it was almost in the forest, I was scared that I might see a bear or a wolf, especially when the winters were very cold and long. Sometimes you could hear wolves howling. This didn’t stop us going to school on foot though.

I was in secondary school now, which was in our nearest town, called Sipovo. Sipovo is seven kilometres away from Pljeva. We had no public transport anymore, there was no petrol for it, so we walked every day. Seven kilometres there and back, in the daylight and in the dark. I loved the walks, but I didn’t love the school. I went to a grammar school to study languages, but we didn’t have foreign language teachers very often, they were deployed too, so to me this was all a waste of time. Of course, it wasn’t a waste of time, this was a good school. The teachers that they had left, did a magnificent job, but the classes were very few and far between.

As many teenage girls, when I hit my teens, I withdrew massively too. I went from being this bubbly, crazy, happy wild child to a quiet, strange teenage girl who didn’t understand this new social structure. I was a bit like Don Quixote, I didn’t quite get it at all.

I was so worried about our dad. Our grammar school was at the top of this hill in town and from my classroom window you could see the main road going through Sipovo. I remember constantly looking to see if I would spot our dad’s lorry driving through, with its very distinct yellow tarpaulin. This happened only once; I will forever remember how happy I was. I just could not wait for my school to finish so that I could start walking home to my dad. I will never forget this feeling of running up our steps to hug him.

When I was at school, I used to worry about my mum a lot too. She was at home with our baby sister, she had so much on her plate and I no longer could help her all the time. I felt dreadful leaving her every morning.

I spent three years in this grammar school. I didn’t have a good time here, I didn’t make many new friends, but I did make two friends who are still my best friends from Bosnia. They are Maja and Marina. No matter where we are in the world, when we meet up, we always carry on from where we left off. Marina’s parents and our parents had been friends for a long time. They lived in town, not far from our school. Sometimes when the winter nights were so cold, and the snow was too deep, Marina’s mum and dad used ask me to stay with them and sleep over, so I didn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. I used to love these times. Marina was one of four children, she had three younger brothers. Their home was always so calm, harmonious and warm. Marina and her family were always so kind and generous to me. I still remember these nights so well. Eventually both Marina and Maja left too. Their families sent them to Serbia, to Novi Sad, to school. They wanted them to have regular classes, therefore a better education.

I carried on walking to school and back. It’s funny, I never got scared of the possibility of coming across wild animals, I just enjoyed my walks. The river would follow me all the way into town and back, I would listen to its sounds and I’d be away with the fairies. It was so beautiful, so peaceful. There were no cars, no traffic, just nature and me.

After Aleksandar’s death, whenever I was on my own, or not, I used to imagine that he was still alive. I used to imagine that we were walking along the river together, holding hands, talking and laughing. I used to daydream about him a lot, for a long time. I so desperately wanted to be with him, to see him again. I knew I couldn’t, I had to suck it up and move on.

I didn’t do very well at school, I went from being a straight A student in primary school, to barely scraping through in the secondary school. I know my parents wished I did better. I now know that I was grieving, I was depressed. I don’t blame my parents for not knowing this, perhaps they did. But their lives were so extreme too, they had three children to think about, not just me. But at times, I was angry, I wanted to shout: “CAN’T YOU SEE THAT I AM HURTING?!”. I never did.
They did what they could and when they could. They provided a safe haven for us, in the middle of what seemed like a ring of fire.

August 1995; It was my eighteenth birthday. I was putting some washing out onto a washing line on our balcony. An unknown, small group of soldiers walked up to our house. They said: “We are looking for Vesna Đukić, do you know where she lives?” I said: “I am Vesna Đukić.” I got a bit scared, why would they want to see me.
Then they said: “Ah, Happy Birthday Vesna! Your father sent us; he knew we were passing through your town and he asked us to stop by, to wish you a happy birthday.” I cried tears of happiness. My dad apparently, somehow through his wheeling and dealing, also managed to get a crate of beer for his friends in this trench, where he was at this point, in honour of my birthday. We didn’t even know that he was in a trench. We thought that he was still doing his driving. I asked them if they would like to stop by for some food or drinks, they said that they had to go. And just like that, they turned around and left.

The magnitude of love; We, my brother, sister and I, owe so much to our parents. We, my generation, owe everything to our ‘50s babies. We are here because they kept us safe.

7. Broken People Heal.

I was fifteen years old and full of life, hope, naivety.
My wild spirit, however, was slowly morphing into a quiet, worrying, overthinking, too sensitive kind of a creature. I craved silence and nature.
Whenever I could, I would find a few moments on my own, to distance myself from the frequent war talk and constant listening of the news, coming from a radio which was powered by a car battery. I would withdraw, without saying anything to anyone. I had to have my escape whether this was at home on my trusted sofa by the window at night, or in my natural habitat, the wilderness.
I have always been a hopeless romantic too. Like any healthy teenage girl, I started thinking about what it would be like to have a boyfriend. I often dreamed of having my own big family one day, at least four children and a sporty, hardworking husband. I know, this all sounds silly and cliché, but when you are growing up in the middle of crazy and where nothing is cliché, you crave it. You dream of safety, nine to five life, love and comfort. This was nothing but a dream.
Whenever I ventured out into my wilderness, I knew my safe, physical, boundaries very well. As the time went by, and as the war got a lot more dangerous, I had to restrict my walks to just the edges of our forest. I missed my long thinking walks and the very familiar wild environment. I missed the smell & the shades of the deep forest and the soft, silky feel of the moss on the rocks that I used sit on. I missed the heights of “my” hills.
Our parents, mum, would speak to us very often and explain where strategically we were positioned and what the risks of us being attacked were. And if we got attacked, our parents had a plan. They always had a plan for everything and they would make it clear to us, what ever happened, they had a solution; we, the children, would be ok.
Indeed, every now and again, our valley was shelled. During these attacks, because of our safe three level, three concrete floors house, our neighbours would come to us as soon as they would hear the explosions and we would all run and hide in our cellar.
At first, as soon as we were in the cellar, a sense of fear and adrenaline rushing through our bodies would overcome us, followed by deathly silence. We used to all sit on the floor and wait. Nobody ever spoke during these long attacks, as if we were afraid that they would hear us, they would know where we were hiding. Even the young ones, our babies and toddlers, kept quiet. There is something almost majestic about the sound of the shells falling in the distance.
You go into some part of your subconsciousness that tricks you into thinking that this was not real. You start thinking: “This is not happening to us. This isn’t our reality.”
The sound of the shells falling and exploding, almost sounded like we were extras in a WW2 movie. But we weren’t, this was happening. To us. It was very real.
I still find it fascinating that even in those moments we, the children, felt safe. Or we were just too young to understand the risks and the consequences of the attacks. But perhaps most of all, our parents made us feel safe & reassured. We were all in it together.
Our dad, like so many fathers then, wasn’t with us. Our homes were mostly occupied by women and children. Dad had been doing his war equipment & aid transport job for quite a while. This broke my mum, she missed him terribly. She is one very loving and funny lady, she absolutely loves to have a good laugh, especially at her own expense, but during those times she went very quiet. Her safe place was by the burning fire of our range; she spent many evenings sitting on her favourite handmade wooden stool, whilst watching the fire. She & the war mothers had to remain strong, she had three children to look after.
By this point there were many evening curfews in place, but we were still able to go out for a limited amount of time. This felt like being released from prison.
Every now and again, my mum would let me go out with my friends in the evening for a little while, into our tiny town that had just a handful of cafes which in the evenings turned into nightclubs. Our town is approximately seven kilometers away from our village.
My friends and I used to get so excited about these little outings! Like all teenage girls, we used to spend hours getting ready. Our resources were very limited; we’d share our makeup and clothes between us, so we didn’t wear the same clothes every time we went out. This was all terribly exciting. We used to giggle all the way into town. We’d walk there and back. Thinking about it now, this was insane. We could have been intercepted at any one time, especially on the way back when it was already dark.
During one of these nights was the first time I truly fell in love. I remember the moment I saw him, so well. He was tall, sporty looking, with short brown hair; he had bright blue eyes. Gorgeous smile!
We were introduced by a mutual friend. I was the only one out of my friends who didn’t smoke at this time; this caught his attention. He said that he was a non-smoker too and that he was really impressed that I didn’t smoke. He said: “Did you know that Vesna was a goddess of spring?”. This made me so happy, not many people knew this about my name.
He joined us at the table and pulled a chair to sit next to me. My teenage heart was racing like crazy! I was trying so hard not to show my almost physical reaction to him. I was so nervous. But I truly shouldn’t have been, he was so nice and so friendly.
That night we chatted about anything and everything; we got on so well, we laughed so much. He too had this desire to one day, when this war was over, travel and explore the world. We joked and agreed that one day we’d visit New Zealand together.
At this time of my life, talking to boys was not my best skill. I absolutely hated that awkward stage where you just don’t know what to say and you end up sounding like a complete plonker! But talking to him was so easy. He was an intelligent, open minded soul. I think, from that moment on, I dreamed of marrying him every single day.
When we parted that wonderful evening, I gave him our home phone number. He said that he’d call me the next day and he did. His phone calls were magical. I used to get butterflies in my tummy every time I knew he’d be calling me.
To keep our relationship a secret, if my mum answered the phone, he’d say that he was my school friend. At this particular time of my life, my mum didn’t want me to date anyone. These were dangerous times; my mum was always worried that I’d meet someone dishonest. She had enough worry as it was. But I knew I was safe. He was lovely.
I remember telling my best friends about him: how different he was from all the other boys I knew, how kind he was, how insightful and forward thinking he was. He was absolutely stunning too. I was so excited; I was utterly in love!
After many happy & meaningful phone calls, we eventually started dating. It was amazing, and I was constantly on cloud nine. He came from a different town, so unfortunately, we didn’t get to see each other very often because petrol was very sparse then. But the very little time that we spent together was magical to me. We would talk for hours and we both loved walking too. We both loved our stunning natural surroundings. We hiked through the forests a lot; we used to sit high up on this rock that overlooked my beautiful river. We would close our eyes and imagine a world outside of our country’s borders.
We dated for a year in secret. My mum was still too shy to talk to me about boys. I desperately wanted to tell her how nice he was and how kind he was to me.
He was two years older than me. When his eighteenth birthday came, this was such a bittersweet occasion on so many levels. I couldn’t go to his family birthday party, it was too far away for me to go there and come back in time before the curfew. I remember I was so angry at the whole situation that we were in. I was so upset.
I was also absolutely terrified; I knew what was coming. He had to go to war too. I became fearful even more.
I always worried about our dad but worrying about my love was different. I loved him deeply. I was going to have my four babies with him one day, after we’d traveled the world.
I got to see him a few days after his birthday. He came to say goodbye. He reassured me that everything would be ok and that we had our lives ahead of us, together. I held him so tightly when we said our goodbye. I wanted to remember the smell of his skin and the colour of his eyes. Bright blue. We made our undying promises. He left.
That day I skipped school. I went for a long walk, I sat on our rock above the river, making sure I made plenty of room for him. I closed my eyes, listened to the river & imagined him sitting next to me, holding my hand.
16th of February 1994.
It was my good friend’s sixteenth birthday party. I remember it so well, we had no electricity.
It was very rare that we had any electricity at this point, our evenings were spent indoors in candlelit rooms, listening to the radio powered by wires connected to a car battery. My friends and I would go to each other’s homes and we’d play drinking games and we sometimes played the Ouija type board game. This was hilarious because we had a thief amongst us, we all knew this person’s “secret” habits, and whenever we played this game, this person would always say that they suddenly had to go home, and they’d absolutely leg it across the bridge. Crossing the bridge at night was extremely dangerous, but I suppose “a ghost telling all of us” about this person’s stealing habits was lethal! Ha!
This party was the same. One candle, homebrewed alcohol and some music on the radio. We sang and danced, like only teenagers can, completely oblivious to the outside world. We were so happy!
Suddenly someone knocked on my friend’s front door and to our delight, it was my friend’s brother who had somehow managed to come home from war to surprise his sister on her birthday.
We were all absolutely hysterical with happiness. He was home, and he was alive and well. He hadn’t been home for three months. It was amazing. We all hugged him a lot.
Once things calmed down a bit, he said that he wanted to speak to me in private.
We sat down on the floor in the hallway. I was a little drunk I think. I kept giggling and saying: “What? What? What is it? Tell me!”
He lifted his head up and said:
“Aleksandar was shot by a sniper. He died two days ago. They tried everything, but they couldn’t save him. I am so sorry. His funeral was yesterday.”
My Aleksandar. Dead. He was already buried. My Aleksandar.
The whole room started spinning around me. I felt faint. The tears were absolutely streaming down my face, silently. It was my friend’s birthday. It was her night and her brother had just come home. I didn’t want to spoil it for her.
I just took my coat, put my boots on and very quietly left. It was bitterly cold outside, the moonlight was so bright, I could see the steam coming off the river. It looked breathtaking.
I stopped by the river and I wept. Losing him hurt so much. My pain was almost physical, I was shaking whilst I cried silent tears. He was my dream, my dream man. I was going to have my four babies with him. I wanted to hug him so desperately. I wanted him to hold me tightly how he used to. I wanted to see his face and kiss it. I wanted to inhale the smell of his skin whilst he is holding me, hugging me. I wanted to talk to him. More than anything, I wanted to talk to him. I was in shock; my absolute darkest & worst fears became my reality.
I stayed by the river until my feet and fingertips were so cold, they became numb. I ran home, slipping along the way and scraping my fingertips on ice and the hardened snow. When I got home, before I went into the house, I quickly wiped my tears with my sleves, took some deep breaths and I walked in. Mum was sitting by the fire, no candlelight; she wanted to save the candle for the next night, she said. My brother and sister were already asleep. “Now that you are back, I will go to sleep too, I’m tired. Keep the fire going.”
This was my saviour. I sat in our living room, on my favourite sofa and wept, silently in the dark. I kept seeing images in my head of him hurt. He must have been so cold when fell into the snow. I felt his pain deep inside. I knew he was gone, that his spirit had left his body, but I kept thinking how cold he must be lying in the freezing ground. It hurt, it hurt deep inside me…I felt sick. I felt so angry and desperate to see him. Knowing that I will never see him again was killing me. I cried so much that night. I cried for his parents and his sister too. I desperately wanted to visit them, to tell them that I loved him so much too & how sorry I was, but I had no means of getting to them. There was no transport. All I could do was pray for them and for my Aleksandar.
For a long while, this was my life. My evenings were spent like this, crying on my own in the dark, going through my stages of grief. I tried so hard to accept that a young life was lost,
that my love was lost. I couldn’t help but feel this tremendous anger! Why him?! Why take him?! He was too young. We had a loving future ahead of us. Why me?!
To me, to this sixteen-year-old suffering soul, at that time, his death was the end of my world. I know, I was very young. I was in my formative, most vulnerable years. My whole life was ahead of me.
Unfortunately, as you can imagine, my situation was not unique. There were many, many people in my country who had lost their loved ones. I felt that I had no right to grieve openly; wives had lost their husbands, mothers had lost their sons and children had lost their daddies.
This knowledge, however, didn’t extinguish my pain. To my young mind, he was my forever.
What I didn’t understand was what a lasting effect his death would leave on me. Losing him, and friends after him, affects me to this day. It affects me as a wife and as a mother. I have to fight my fears of losing my precious, loved ones, daily.
I never spoke to my mum about Aleksandar’s death. She knew, my friends’ parents told her.
My mum was already broken. Her husband, her younger brother, her husband’s two brothers and many, many of my parents’ friends were at war. She didn’t know where they were, there were no phone calls or emails to their frontlines then. She had three children to look after and somehow feed us and keep us safe. She had so much on her shoulders.
I didn’t want to break her even more by telling her how hurt I was; that I was grieving. I grieved on my own. But in her own way, she helped me. She made sure that I had plenty of time on my own in the darkness of our evenings.
Death was something that we, teenagers, didn’t talk about. It was too hurtful to talk about it. There was too much of it around us. My friends knew what had happened, but we never spoke about him.
I wrote him letters. So many. Writing these letters gave me peace and solace. I stored them in my room, tucked away in my bed. For nobody to ever see them or read them. They were just for him.
I never got to see his grave. But after more than two decades, he is still a massive part of me. He strengthened my belief in bigger and better world that was out there. Not just Bosnia and our horrid civil war.
He reinforced my desire to travel and he reinforced my thirst for learning. He helped me broaden my understanding of the world. With him, I was whole. Without him, I was broken for a long time.
I think I was broken until I met my husband. It took my husband a long time to build me back up. His love, determination and patience has helped me mend my broken, fragile being. But I feared, I feared, and I fear. I feared that whomever I loved, that they would die too.
Even after twenty-four years, writing about Aleksandar was still so hard and raw.
But I can tell you that I am filled with love and nothing else.
The only way we can heal is by fully embracing the pain and the love that we felt for this person. Fully and truly and thoroughly. We have to let it hurt, we have to cry it out, write it out, run it out, walk it out…whatever works. Please, if you are grieving, just let it all out, do whatever works for you.
And only then we can celebrate this wonderful person we loved so deeply, and only then we can move on, but never forget.